The Myth of the Lone Genius

A blog about business and economics.
July 10 2014 11:36 AM

The Myth of the Lone Genius

Beatles.
They came together.

Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

This story first appeared in Inc.

Challenging the Great Man theory of entrepreneurship can be an uphill task. For every article in praise of Steve Wozniak's role as Apple's co-founder, you'll find hundreds crediting Steve Jobs as if he single-handedly invented laptops, cellphones, and digitized music.

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Part of this is because of the lone-genius myth, which Joshua Wolf Shenk recently described in the Atlantic. "For centuries, the myth of the lone genius has towered over us, its shadow obscuring the way creative work really gets done," he writes.

The Truth About Talent

The result? When Jeff Bezos calls innovation a team activity, Bezos still gets the credit. When great companies share their big plans, we tweet about their celebrity-CEOs

The truth is, companies succeed or fail not because of one leader's talents, but because of the collective talent, brainpower, and work ethic under one figurative roof. (Cash and luck are also important.) 

In startups, a combination of many skills is necessary. Bill Gross, founder of the legendary startup incubator Idealab, believes the best management teams feature a blend of four complementary skills—each represented by a personality type. These personality types are:

  • The entrepreneur (E), who has the big-picture vision.
  • The producer (P), who "makes things happen, who actually takes a product, executes on it, sells it—all the execution stages, to get it in customers' hands."
  • The administrator (A), who is part bureaucrat, part troubleshooter, part organizer, someone who "puts systems in place and helps the trains run on time and keeps the wheels on the bus when things are going crazy."
  • The integrator (I), a "people person" who understands the other three types and helps "those three talents get along, because very often those other three talents hate each other's guts."

In Gross' experience, most people are dominant in one of these four areas. For a startup to be successful, its top team needs a mix of all four talents. 

Does that sound familiar? From the best teams you've been a part of, you can probably recognize which members of the team brought the key elements of E, P, A, and I to the table.

What's great about Gross' theory is that it applies to almost any team setting. It works for startups, but you can also think about successful sports teams—or rock bands—and deconstruct their identities, based on which members possessed the highest levels of E, P, A, and I.

Where Business Meets the Beatles

Though he doesn't use Gross' four-letter methodology, a comparable dissection of skills is behind Shenk's deconstruction of the lone-genius myth in the Atlantic. Specifically, Shenk's subject is the Beatles. He has a bone to pick with Beatles fans who try to decipher if Paul McCartney or John Lennon deserves more compositional credit as the lone genius behind one song or another. 

In reality, Shenk suggests, the Lennon-McCartney tandem worked because of how complementary their skills were. Here's how Geoff Emerick, the principal engineer for many major Beatles records, describes their complementary skills: 

Paul was meticulous and organized: he always carried a notebook around with him, in which he methodically wrote down lyrics and chord changes in his neat handwriting. In contrast, John seemed to live in chaos: he was constantly searching for scraps of paper that he'd hurriedly scribbled ideas on. Paul was a natural communicator; John couldn’t articulate his ideas well. Paul was the diplomat; John was the agitator. Paul was soft-spoken and almost unfailingly polite; John could be a right loudmouth and quite rude. Paul was willing to put in long hours to get a part right; John was impatient, always ready to move on to the next thing. 

If you apply Gross' four types to Emerick's description, a certain picture emerges. Painting with a broad brush, you can argue that Lennon brought the entrepreneurial (E) skills to the team, while McCartney brought the producer (P) skills. As for Emerick and legendary Beatles studio guru George Martin, they brought the administrative (A) and integrator (I) skills. 

To be sure, there were probably times when Lennon was more of a producer and McCartney was more of an entrepreneur. You don't have to be a Beatles historian to know that. You just have to know how great teams work. 

Ilan Mochari is a senior writer for Inc magazine and the author of Zinsky the Obscure.

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